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Interview with Dentin, Creator of Alter Aeon (Pt. 4)

This is the final segment of a four part interview with Dentin. This interview deals with more direct questions about Dentin's own choices in developing A.A. in the direction he has, thoughts on mud development, and design philosophy.

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Q1. You're currently working on a scifi universe builder for a space-based game. You are a big fan of science and technology, and yet, when you started Alter Aeon, you began with a fantasy game. Any particular reason for that choice? If you were to start over, would you have maybe chosen a scifi world to start rather than the fantasy world?

Correction: I'm currently working on the space based game. The universe builder is functional and already installed. It's just a matter of building a game around it.

When we (the old Alaska crew) started Alter Aeon, we did it because Hidden Worlds was all we knew, and the Hidden Worlds experience was what we wanted back. We started building AA as our idealized version of HW, but it quickly diverged and became something else. The space game wasn't really on the table, because I wouldn't have had as much support from the guys and it would have taken much longer. Without the support of the others in Alaska, AA might not have lasted its first year.

On a restart, I'd probably still do a fantasy world. I know a lot about building fantasy worlds, and there's a lot of awesome spell and skill ideas built up which could be reused. Switching to an entirely different genre would mean that experience isn't used.

This isn't to say that I can't do both. I'm designing Stellar Aeon to be much more maintenance free than AA, and at the moment I'm planning on having no builders whatsoever. The hope is that once set in place, it will largely be able to run on its own.

Q2. A lot of players grumble because of the various perks and add-ons that you now charge for that were once free or unavailable in the game prior to the present. I'm guessing that donations do not fully fund the costs of maintaining the web site and server. Am I correct? Or, if they do cover raw costs, I'm sure they don't cover your time investment in the game. Do you ever think about other perhaps more profitable time investments?

For the record: I don't discuss financials with anyone.

Players will always grumble about things that aren't how they used to be, or that they see as even the smallest bit unfair. It happens.

All I can do from my side is try to give people options to buy things that make sense, and try to keep those things from damaging the game in the long term. This means that nobody should be locked out of the system, and that new players can in fact hope to compete with older players if they put in the time and effort.

I think we've managed to do this. With all the active players we have and the possibilities for trading, nobody is locked out of the system. Even the most spratling newbie can build up a character to rival the most powerful, without ever spending a single dollar.

I've tried really hard to keep the system open to everyone, and I think this is a good thing, not a bad one. Some people have more money than time - those people can buy things directly with credits if they wish, and help me keep the game running. Some people have more time than money - those people can buy things by trading with others or putting in the time. It's a big system, and different people bring different things to the table for trade. All of them are important.

I think a lot of bigger games forget that. If you just have the people with money, you don't have as many of those people who put in the hard work to obtain things that money can't buy. And if you just have the people with time on their hands, you don't have a running server. Everyone plays their part in the Alter Aeon economy, and the end result is that we keep the game going and give a lot of different people something they can contribute to and feel good about.

Q3. A week or two ago, there was a discussion on Bovine about muds, why they have given place to MMOs, and some of the issues you have seen with mud developers and the way other muds have been run. What to you distinguishes A.A. from most other muds? Is it more than just the custom code? Do you have other muds or graphics-based games that you examine, play, talk to admins of, etc to get new ideas for Alter Aeon? Do you think A.A. is still relevant in a graphics heavy environment? Have you, as has been aledged by some people, merely been catering A.A. toward the blind community?

What distinguishes AA from most other muds is that AA has players, and most other muds do not. I am convinced that this is largely because most other muds are Not Fun.

Seriously, most other muds aren't fun. There are literally thousands of muds out there, with the vast bulk of them never having a real player load above four people (and most of those being the builders/owners.) Of the top 20 or so muds with actual players, you'll find that they're actually different, that they offer something unusual, and that most critically, they're fun to play in some way.

If I had to list my biggest realization about AA in the 18 years I've been working on it, it would be the day that I realized that I didn't actually enjoy my own game, and that my game wasn't fun for me, pretty much at all. That was the turning point around 2009, when we started to get new players.

I constantly get ideas from everywhere. I've gotten ideas from Starcraft, Diablo 2, Minecraft, Gemcraft, first person shooters, books, research papers, guides, fanfic, articles, forums, blog posts, players, my mom, and my girlfriend. No source is sacrosanct.

Yes, I think AA is still relevant in a graphics heavy environment, but that is largely due to the blind community. As much as I anticipate the day when Morpheus and Stefen can have their eyestalks regenerated, I also fear that it may make AA less relevant.

My answer to that fear are things like the dclient, which help bridge the gap between graphics and text, and Stellar Aeon, which is designed from the ground up to allow for both a blind text and fully graphical interface.

And for the record, I haven't been catering AA specifically to the blind community: I've been catering it to everyone. If you look at the changelog entries for this year, you'll find a few of them specific to blind players and clients - but the vast bulk of those entries are to make the game better for everyone, including myself. Blind players are capable, and they don't need handholding any more than sighted players do. What they need is support and a supporting environment, and they will make their own magic happen. Mush-Z is a perfect example - I just provided the infrastructure, blind players did all the hard work.

Q4. Since you began coding A.A., you have improved, by your own admission, vastly as a coder. Do you feel that there are things you'd love to go back and rip out and redo correctly? Are you doing this sort of work behind the scenes? Or, alternatively, is the code difficult to fool with at a fundamental level because of incremental changes causing larger issues than the supposed improvements bring?

I'm constantly doing architectural and structural changes behind the scenes. There are a lot of reboots with one or two seemingly minor changes, that have half a dozen changed files an a lot of reorganization behind them. The last three months in particular are a good example: the changelog entries aren't that big in the grand scheme of things, but in that time I made twelve thousand lines of code into common libraries, wrote test cases, moved them to core, and started using them in the Stellar Aeon server.

At a fundamental level, it's pretty easy to modify the code and muck around. I have years of experience doing it, and a lot of tools to help me. Changing things at low levels sometimes breaks stuff, but not usually anything important, and almost never anything that breaks the game long term. Control-C might not work for a couple of boots because I forgot a linkage in the telnet processor, but that's about the extent of it.

The really dangerous changes are the policy changes, the spell and skill and class changes which are built on top of the fundamentals. Ripping out and moving ten thousand lines of code to make the socket stack common is far less dangerous than doubling the hitpoints of shadow fiends, or posting bad case law on the case law board.

As always Dentin, we appreciate your time in answering these questions. I hope others find them as interesting as I have. Thank you for being available to the player base for such questions, and for making Alter Aeon the place it is.

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